Friday, February 21, 2014

Anatomy of a Custom Album - Part I

Engaged couples meeting with photographers have probably realized that there can be a daunting number of offerings to chose from. While most people understand coverage hours, engagement sessions, image hosting, and second shooters. Album options can be difficult to fully explain during the initial consultation. You might have left the meeting asking yourself these questions:

  • Why do album prices vary from photographer to photographer?
  • Slip-in, flushmount, matted, press printed. What do these mean?
  • What makes it custom? What goes into an album design?
  • What options do I have to chose from?
  • How long will it take to get my album?

Albums are like many other products: items of higher quality will cost more. It's no mystery that price consists of two main ingredients: materials and labor. For the most part, materials costs do not vary much between album makers and color labs. The market is somewhat competitive with many albums makers selling similar products. Even color labs serving the professional market are too numerous to list. You should expect that selecting higher grade materials like leather, linen, book cloth, acrylic, or etched aluminum covers; custom end papers; special photo papers; and boxes or slipcovers will add to the total.

Albums (like enlargements) are a labor of love for most photographic professionals. What the client pays is based primarily on the skill level of your photographer and the amount of time they dedicate to the finished product. How a photographer values his/her time, the amount of design effort he/she applies, and the overall design expertise and retouching experience of photographer or designer also comes into play.

You should expect to pay competent professionals between $2000 and $5000.

Albums Types
For over 30 years until about the early 2000's "slip-ins" were the predominant type of wedding album offered. Photographers now often refer to these as "your parent's" wedding album and you probably can immediately visualize what they are. Slip-in's were so named because of the way you would position the photograph behind an opening. One print (sometimes more) is slipped in through a seam or at the page's edge. Today, this basic album has largely been replaced by the ubiquitous flush mount. Sorry, I have no images of a slip-in.

Flush mounts, shown below, became popular when several enabling technologies matured at around the same time. Computers became fast and economical to the point where most people had one if not more in their homes. Digital SLR camera's led to massive increases in the use of Adobe Photoshop and digital printing on photographic paper (digital minilabs like the Fuji Frontier) proliferated and increased in popularity thus driving prices down. This permitted digital photographers to design their own album layouts and find a lab to print the design on photo paper. The later revolutions were unimaginably rapid, accompanied by amazing cost reductions, and left a wake of casualties like Kodak, Contax, Yashica, Agfa film, etc. forever changing photography. *Sigh*

In flush mount albums a single sheet often called a panorama (pano) or spread is either split or folded at the middle and mounted on to facing pages. The edges are then trimmed flush with the page, thus the name "flush mount". Pages are thick and rigid and spreads are almost always produced on true photographic paper (aka C-type). Software has given creatives the ability to design intricate layouts with elements not possible or practical with traditional matted albums. Adobe Photoshop and a variety of other specialized layout tools help with design. This is by far the choice of most wedding pro's and clients today. Flush mounts are the most popular albums with my clients. They fill the sweet spot with respect to cost, value, and design convenience.

A few drawbacks about this album style; they are HEAVY and there are page capacity limits. Thick and rigid pages means a 40 page book is easily several pounds making them difficult to lift. This also makes it impractical to design books more than 60 pages. The album would be too thick and heavy and few album makers would warranty them for more than 60 pages. Sometimes couples will opt for 2 volumes. Another potential negative is the page material used. I have never seen warped pages with the company I use, but I have seen warped pages from other manufacturers. In general, the more flexible the page, the more likely it is to warp. This a tradeoff, some album makers user lighter or thinner materials making it more susceptible to warping.

Above is the matted album, a contemporary version of the slip-in. Individual photographs are permanently mounted in an opening similar to the slip-in concept, but materials and aesthetics are upgraded. Paper mats surround the photograph and just like flush mounts, pages are thick and rigid. Many album makers hand cut the acid free mats so you can have single images or a multiple image layout. It is a clever blend of a traditional appearance with modern techniques.

There are many beautiful products in this category and these types of albums have a understated and classic appeal. Some might say they are more fine art oriented as well allowing a single well-composed image speak for itself instead of showing off a a highly designed layout.

The late 2000's ushered in a new breed of press printed albums. Advances in digital printing did away with the need for films, separations, and plates making it practical and affordable to produce one-off books and even to self-publish in small quantities.
Album pages are printed on a multi-ink digital press (like the HP Indigo). Imagine the beautiful coffeetable photography books you see in local bookstores - that is what you can expect with these albums. The most attractive aspect though IMHO is the ability to offer an acid-free album option with true archival qualities.

You probably notice that the press printed album is thinner. Thickness depends on paper selection, the example I show above is about a half inch thick and contains about 100 pages of acid free matte stock. You can see in the next picture of what one looks like open. It is a coffeetable book in every way right down to the stitched library binding.

I am drawn to these press-printed albums because of the design freedom they offer. It would be silly to have only 30 or 40 pages in these albums, my albums are usually more than 100 pages in size. In fact, the album maker I use only takes orders in 100 page increments. This means I can use larger images and more of them. With flushmounts I sometimes feel forced to cram too many images on a single page to compromise between what the client wants to show and the number of pages they want to order. That will never be a problem with these books.

Cover Options
My flush mount and matted albums are always bound in leather. I like the look, feel, and smell of the material. If you decide to venture away from popular colors the bindery is able to match with reasonable fidelity when a sample is provided. In the past, clients have chosen navy blue, tan, white, black, expresso, brown, etc. Press printed albums have a wider array of options like photo covers, linens, and dust jackets. Shown here is an example of a 10 inch x 10 inch flush mount album with a rich brown leather cover.

A second option I offer is a partial leather back and spine with a photo cover for personalization. Below is a 12x9 example with a Signature Cover. Other things like etched metal covers or acrylic photo covers are available, but I prefer simple leather and the photo cover.

Beside the use of leather, other signs of quality are the binding and page materials. The "library" binding features pages that are sewn together with a material (often linen) glued to the spine providing better durability and support. My press-printed albums employ this binding method. Most flush mount albums have a modified form of this binding as well. As I mentioned, page warping is a common problem in flush mount albums. It is most likely due to page stiffness and the mounting process. I've seen it in at least two very popular albums makers. Fortunately, I've never experienced this with my album maker.

The Little Things
Two additional points are how an open album sits and page gutters. Not all albums lay flat when open which can be annoying. Albums that do not will fan their pages when you open them. I prefer albums that lay flat because it is easier to view a spread. It doesn't seem like a big deal, but it is and makes an enormous difference when looking through the album. The ability to lay flat is a pet peeve of mine and always the first thing I check at tradeshows in an album makers booth.

Photo paper is not designed to be creased or bent. The paper can eventually delaminate at the fold leading to costly repairs down the road. Splitting the album page prevents this. As you can see, my albums are all split down the middle of the spread. What's nice about the album maker I've chosen is that the gap or gutter between pages is incredibly small. One of the smallest I've seen among the various albums companies. If you split a panoramic image that spans two pages, you will not notice the gap, nice!

Stay tuned for Anatomy of a Custom Album - Part II coming soon.

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